Alessandro: The Black Prince of Florence

Submitted by AWL on 1 June, 2016 - 1:07 Author: Cathy Nugent

Cath Fletcher's book about Alessandro de' Medici, the bastard son of a Duke and a servant, or possibly slave, of a black African background, is a work of historical detection. The text weighs up the often contradictory, dishonest and sparse accounts of Alessandro's life.

Sometimes the only information about moments in his life comes from household inventories, lists of fine clothes, or letters of thanks for elaborate gifts. But such are the records that must be used to track Alessandro's installation as the Duke of Florence in 1532, only to be assassinated less than five years later by a distant Medici cousin. Alessandro was buried in his father's sarcophagus with no prominent sign to show where he lay. After his death he was described as a brute, a rapist and a tyrant, a best-forgotten Duke.

One subtext here is reference to his lowly and, to a lesser extent, racial origins. But who was the real Alessandro? Under what circumstances, and for what purpose, could a “black prince” come to power in 16th century Italy? Cath's answers form an entertaining story of a turbulent and dangerous world. Alessandro's rise in status was unusual, but, as Cath says, the bastard children of European aristocrats were often promoted; often used, for example, to make advantageous marriages. And the idea of race in Renaissance Italy was not, as it would be by the nineteenth century, understood through fixed categories, or contested through critiques of those categories. On the other hand black servants were treated as exotic objects.

What I found interesting about Alessandro's short period of rule — and I found strange that it should be forgotten — is how important it seems to have been in marking and establishing a transition to a different political order in Florence. That in turn was a reflection of political change in Italy, as the world of city-state republics declined, and was replaced by a more princely order. The Medici family were important merchants and bankers in Florence by the early fourteenth century.

Florence's republican system of government — which Alessandro was to reform into a aristocratic government — was highly unstable. A Signoria of eight chief magistrates oversaw two consultative councils elected by guilds (around a quarter of the population). The Signoria were elected for two months only. Factionalism, family feuding and nepotism were endemic. For a century the Medicis struggled for ascendancy within this system and because of that effort they were twice expelled from the city. Then in 1523 a Medici son became a Pope. Clement VII decided to get Florence back for good and, more by accident than by design, used his nephew Alessandro to further that ambition. In 1530, with help from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Clement got an army to blockade Florence and starve the republic into submission. Alessandro's job was to secure Florence for the Medicis against the prospect of armies raised by exiled republican leaders. To build new fortifications inside the city and wider Tuscan region. To seek out rebels, to employ spies, to disarm potential enemies and punish others and to a certain extent win support through a populist appeal to the lower classes.

Although eventually he did not avoid the plotting of his republican-sympathising cousin, he did his job well enough to ensure a 37-year rule by his successor, a distant cousin, Cosimo de' Medici. This book is not an explicit analysis about class and state formations of 16th century Italy and Europe. It is more of a reconstruction and description of the events, relationships, property, art and philosophy.

Nonetheless this book will have you reaching for your Machievelli and your Gramsci to better understand the shockingly violent lives of a warring and ferociously ambitious ruling class.

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